NEW YORK—The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they will start screening passengers traveling from central China at three U.S. airports to check whether they have contracted a new and potentially deadly virus, beginning on Jan. 17.
The virus, which causes a severe form of pneumonia, has sickened many people in China and across Asia.
Screenings will begin in New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), Los Angeles International Airport, and San Francisco International Airport for anyone with connecting or direct flights from the Chinese city of Wuhan, CDC officials announced on Friday.
The agency has dispatched over 100 staffers. The first direct flight from Wuhan is expected to arrive Friday night at around 10 p.m. in JFK. The second one will arrive Saturday morning in San Francisco.
The health officials said they will take temperatures and check for signs of fever and other pneumonia-like symptoms.
The CDC will also collect biological samples from passengers suspected of contracting the virus for laboratory testing. Results may take up to a day to come out.
Wuhan authorities first confirmed the outbreak in late December.
Meanwhile, Thailand has confirmed two cases of infection as of Friday, and Japan one case—all visitors who recently traveled to Wuhan—prompting fears of a possible international epidemic.
Suspected cases have gone up to five in Singapore, while Vietnam’s Ministry of Health also quarantined two Chinese tourists who appeared feverish. Hong Kong’s public hospitals have admitted 81 suspected cases.
The last time the U.S. agency issued such measures was during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, when authorities screened thousands of travelers coming from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone in West Africa.
As many as 5,000 people could go through the screening over the next few weeks, Martin Cetron, director of the division of global migration and quarantine at the CDC, said at a media briefing held over the phone. Roughly 60,000 to 65,000 people travel from Wuhan to the United States annually, according to Cetron.
The World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday encouraged “all countries to continue preparedness activities” in light of the Japan case, the second confirmed outside of China. It said that there are likely more cases in other countries given the global travel patterns. The CDC on Friday expressed a similar view. The WHO did not rule out the possibility of human to human transmission.
“This is a serious situation,” Nancy Messonnier, the head of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said on Friday, noting that the virus looks similar to the pathogens responsible for “serious and complex” outbreaks of MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) in 2012 and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2002. She said that the agency is taking a “cautious and proactive” approach to the pathogen while awaiting further information.
“It doesn’t take much for a virus in general to go from being worrisome to being especially worrisome, because they tend to morph and mutate a lot,” she said.
As it is the flu season, the officials did acknowledge that screenings are likely to flag cases of common viruses such as influenza.
There are no known cures to the disease at this time. There are no screening measures in the Wuhan airport or anywhere else in China, according to Cetron. He stressed that screenings are only taking place “on the receiving end” so far, adding that the CDC will continue requesting Chinese authorities to do exit screenings.
Authorities have linked the outbreak to a seafood market where a number of patients have worked or frequented, but said they are still investigating the cause. The market has been shut down since Jan. 1. The patient in Japan did not stop by the market but had potential close contact with pneumonia patients in China, according to the Japanese Ministry of Health.
Multiple countries and regions, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, South Korea, and the Philippines, have stepped up their screening measures at ports of entry to detect possible cases of the Wuhan pneumonia.
The Institute for Virology at Berlin’s Charite hospital said on Thursday they have developed a diagnostic test that would allow labs to diagnose the novel coronavirus “in a very short period of time.”
Christian Drosten, head researcher at the institute, said that the virus is the “same type of virus” to the SARS pathogen “in a different variant,” according to German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH.